The Accidental Incidental Great Lakes Walkabout, Part 1: Da Porkies

“I’ve always wanted to drive across the Mackinac Bridge,” said Tim, ever so innocently, once upon a time in Wisconsin. 
So it was that two hours north of Eagle River we found ourselves at a three-way intersection in Michigan confronted by the enormity of Lake Superior. We had entered Yooper Territory. See, Michigan consists of two halves, the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula, connected by the Mackinaw Bridge. Residents of the UP refer to themselves as da Yoopers and have a very distinct dialect. See here.
There’s no wonder less than five percent of Michigan’s total population resides in the UP. It’s a beautiful but harsh environment. Here, mosquitoes laugh in the face of DEET and coordinate relentless aerial assaults against humans at all hours of the day. Carnivorous flies penetrate multiple layers of clothing to rip away tiny chunks of flesh for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The weather is also much harsher in the UP. Our first night at the Porcupine Mountains State Park we experienced a thrilling thunderstorm. For hours, sheets of rain buffeted our tent, threatening to rip through its seams. Indeed, there was a fair bit of duct tape maintenance to be done the next morning. 
The Porkies are a small group of mountains at the far western edge of the UP, once the site of copper mining. In the heart of the mountains lay the Lake of the Clouds. This is the park’s most popular site, so we went there first for a relaxing little nature walk. 

After admiring the scenic vista for a while we headed over to the Union Mine Trail, a one-mile jaunt through the forest promising views of sparkling waterfalls, old growth forest, and the remains of the Nonesuch Mine. The previous night’s rain made for a distressingly humid day. As it heated up past 90 degrees, I entered the forest thinking, “It’s only a mile.”

One mile my ass.
It felt more like three or four miles through the Amazon rainforest. If my life was a movie, Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” would have been playing in the background. Clawing through that hot soupy air, swatting away clouds of biting flies at every turn, wiping sheets of perspiration from my brow, I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on the hunt to get shots of a rare species of tropical bird.  A dense canopy did provide shady relief in several spots, including those along rust-colored babbling brooks and waterfalls. By the time we emerged from the trail, I felt a great sense of accomplishment from just making it out alive.

Our plan to cool down at the beach was thwarted by reports from our neighbors back at camp, who’d tried to do the same and were driven away by droves of biting flies (again with the flies!). A short time later we found ourselves walking through the doors of Porky’s Pub ‘n’ Grub down the road.
“Hey dere, what can a get fer you guys?”
“What do you have on tap?”
[laughs] “Oh nothin’…I just got what ya see dere.” 
At first I thought, “Oh, great. This is going to be the lamest bar.” I was wrong; that was merely an introduction to the Yooper way: straightforward and not without a sense of humor. Tim and I spent a good three hours in conversation with Dennis the Bartender and other Yoopers who told us all about life in Ontonagon, Michigan. They regaled us with tales of driving through multiple feet of snow in the winter and joked about plans to lure tourists into the trees across the street in their quest for cell phone service.  
We learned a lot over the course of five beers, a basket of fries and two pan-fried Walleye filets. The most memorable part of the evening came when we overheard Dennis in a dark corner of the bar speaking in hushed tones to a new arrival. Words like “pounds,” “ounces” and “I got it” floated over. Glancing over at them, I saw a mysterious object pass between the two and examined under the bar. Drugs?
No…copper! Eventually Dennis came over to us with a huge smile on his face and excitedly plunked down a huge piece of copper on the bar. Michigan has one of the largest concentrations of copper in the world, he told us. After the copper boom dwindled, mining operations folded and left remnants strewn about. Now copper hunting is a local hobby.

That evening a violent thunderstorm drove us into our tent before the sun even went down. The bugs, the heat, the humidity, the sudden weather changes – it can all be summed up by something one of the guys at the bar told us. “Welcome to da UP. Everything here bites.”


Close Encounters of the Natural Kind

Wisconsin is a state of unrivaled dairy, verdant farmland and friendly neighbors. It’s also a singular font of natural wonders. For three days we camped at Franklin Lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Imagine our surprise upon arriving to campsite with a moving carpet — dozens of miniscule frogs, each no larger than a nickel. Their hippity-hoppity welcome wagon was but the first of our Northwoods fauna encounters.

The forest surrounding our camp possessed a canopy so thick that sunlight merely trickled in in patches. Loons filled the air at all times of the day with their signature call. Unseen animals scurried about in the undergrowth. Clusters of skinny white-barked birch trees held leaves that rustled  gently in the occasional breeze, shimmering in the light. Franklin Lake itself is a hidden gem of pristine water, its tranquility preserved by an undeveloped shoreline. Hardly any boats disturb its placid waters which offer respite from the oppressive afternoon heat and ravenous insects.

One day we had to go into town for provisions. Zoned out in the passenger’s seat on the way back, I suddenly noticed an irregularity in the greenery outside. Before my brain had a chance to register what the dark form was, Tim exclaimed, “Did you see that?! Was that a bear?” Before I could answer, I felt the car moving in reverse. Outside of the rear window a black bear lumbered along the shoulder of the road. We had come within ten feet of it just seconds before.

The next day we embarked on a fishing expedition through the Eagle River Chain o’ Lakes. (Not kidding – it’s officially spelled “Chain o’ Lakes.”) This vacation community is highly developed, its shores crowded with summer homes, lodges, private piers and dockside restaurants. It is not the kind of place I would expect to have any Steve Irwin adventures. A couple of hours into the trip found us quietly casting our lines into the depths of Eagle Lake. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bald eagle appeared in the sky! My jaw literally dropped as it soared overhead. Up until that point, the bald eagle had been a mythical creature to me, a fabled endangered species of grade school text books and American coinage. In the flesh this eagle was far greater than any photograph. After it flew away a hungry osprey grabbed our attention. It dove into the water in front of us and shot back up with a fish in its mouth, just like a scene out of Nature. Nearby, common loons likewise dove into the water, then skimmed the surface wailing and elaborately displaying themselves for any loon ladies in the area.

We lazily explored six or seven lakes that day and caught no fish. On the way back to the marina we sped through the waters where we could. Lucky for us we entered a “Slow No Wake” zone at just the right place. Perched upon an old tree stump at the edge of the shoreline  sat a humungous golden eagle. It was about two feet tall with nutty brown plumage, sharp golden talons and blazing yellow eyes. It rotated its head around nearly 360 degrees, scanning for prey. As we crept around the corner, coming within 15 feet or so of this imposing raptor, it did not flinch or otherwise indicate that it considered us to be any higher on the food chain than it.

That night we may have settled for a weenie roast instead of fresh fish for dinner, but we did not go back to camp disappointed. Nature had provided such an excitingly singular experience for us that day that it was hard to complain. She did, however, tax us in the form of overly-aggressive mosquitos, tent-loving spiders and huge black beetles that randomly rained down from the trees. Still, I’ll never forget my exotic Northwoods safari. The morning we left Eagle River to head north, Nature threw in one last freebie: a second bald eagle perched atop a telephone pole bid us farewell.

Madison…It’s Like Davis in the Midwest

I’d heard Madison called the “Berkeley of the Midwest” before, but I think it’s more like Davis. It’s a slow-paced, bicycle friendly, culturally diverse university town. But it gets bonus points for being an attractive state capitol, having a supremely vast arboretum and for being situated across four lakes. Downtown Madison itself is an isthmus, laying between Lake Menona and Lake Mendota.

This morning we rambled around downtown, the hub of activity every Saturday morning when the Dane County Farmers’ Market takes place. Today it was extra crowded with a huge art fair taking place concurrently on the Capitol Square. The variety of beautiful produce was familiar, and I found it interesting that Californian spring crops like peas seem to be summer crops in Wisconsin. Booths hawking cheese curds (“They’re squeak-a-licious!”) and local brews gave the market an unmistakable Wisconsin flavor. Lunch consisted of New Glarus Spotted Pig ale and savory stuffed pastries called kolaches.

After lunching we explored the State Capitol building. This elaborate beaux arts building puts Sacramento’s Capitol to shame with its lavish interior. Vibrant glass mosaics, rococo sculptural elements and gold leaf ornamentation abound. I was particularly amused by the four badger sculptures guarding each compass point of the building.

Badgers and Wisconsin – they go together like Nilla wafers and banana puddin’.

Tomorrow we continue north to Eagle River, Wisconsin to make good use of our fishing licenses. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be frying up a couple of fresh fish fillets for dinner at least once this week. If not, we’ll have an opportunity to hone our sandwich-making skills. It’s a win-win situation, really.